Same Ol’ Song and Dance
The BJCC is forging ahead with a second try at an entertainment district.
Nearly two years after developer John Elkington of Performa Entertainment made the last of several unfulfilled promises to put restaurants and other retail businesses in The Forge—an entertainment district adjacent to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex downtown that never came to fruition—the BJCC’s board of directors is pursuing similar grand visions. At the board’s January 19 meeting, interim BJCC Executive Director Tad Snider announced that a Request for Quotations (RFQ) will be issued to prospective developers interested in securing businesses to lease space in the newly proposed entertainment area, to be called Marketplace. Snider said he hopes the board will select a developer by March.
The entertainment district is part of a $70 million complex that will include a 300-room Westin Hotel next to the Southeastern Conference headquarters near the Civic Center. Famous names such as comedian Jeff Foxworthy and local “American Idol” stars Taylor Hicks and Ruben Studdard had previously been mentioned as possible tenants operating bars and restaurants in the district. Snider said the city was still interested in such “high-profile” tenants. “We’ve got the tenant role that was developed for the entertainment district under Performa, when it was going to be The Forge,” Snider said after the board meeting. “And we’re going to pursue all these different venues that were identified [back then], potential lease holders.” No announcements have been made yet about lessees for Marketplace.
On Monday, January, 24, BJCC officials held a groundbreaking ceremony on the Marketplace site. Ruben Studdard attended and promised to stage a marathon race (starting and ending at the Railroad Park) after the entertainment project is complete. He did not mention if he was still interested in opening a club, however. Mayor William Bell noted that the district will bring “world-class entertainment” downtown when he introduced Studdard as an example of the city’s homegrown musical talent. The mayor also touted the city’s ability to attract a quality hotel. “Westin don’t build shacks. They build quality hotels,” Bell said at the groundbreaking, which took place at Richard Arrington Boulevard and 22nd Street North. The entertainment district will be developed next to the hotel on Arrington Boulevard, extending to 24th Street North, and it is scheduled to open in October 2012. Under the current plan the city will lease the land from the BJCC, which will eventually retain ownership of the acreage.
Birmingham’s flirtation with original developer Elkington devolved into a perpetual guessing game regarding the status of The Forge. Some on the board began to doubt that the developer could deliver. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of excitement about this,” former Jefferson County Commission President Bettye Fine Collins said in October 2008 while serving on the board, calling the proposed tenants “ambiguous,” adding that “quality” tenants must be found. Performa, based in Memphis, was hired to create the development in April 2007. Construction had been scheduled to begin in late 2007, according to the developer’s initial reports.
Despite telling the board in 2008 that 80 percent of the space had been preleased, Elkington later admitted that he faced difficulty securing tenants due to the economic climate. “If we were leasing to Applebee’s, or Publix, it would be a different situation,” he told the BJCC board in September 2008. These are tough times.” Elkington once admitted, “We’re gonna make it, or we’ll have a lot of explaining to do.” Performa projects in Jackson, Mississippi, Shreveport, Louisiana, and Trenton, New Jersey, also ran into obstacles amid much criticism about lack of progress. By April 2009, Elkington was still on board with the development but had changed his mind about building on BJCC-owned land. One month later, Performa’s contract with the BJCC expired.
When asked if the city had any guarantees that the next developer would be a wise steward of the taxpayer dollars that will fund the project, Snider said, “The Commercial Development Authority through the city has the agreement with the developer for the hotel. So they have those safeguards built into that agreement, that the developer’s going to deliver the hotel—on time, on budget, as promised.” When asked to comment on why Performa failed to deliver on its promises, Snider said, “Primarily, while [Elkington] was trying to finalize financing, the economy was beginning to deteriorate. And even though he had a significant component of the space preleased, he still was not able to get the last bit of financing. So…he had to secure all the financing, but he was just not able to quite close out before the economy melted down.” The question remains, however, whether the next entity chosen to fill a BJCC-adjacent entertainment district won’t face the same challenges. &